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Supporting think tanks series: Independent research within government

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[Editor's note: This is the fourth of a series of posts based on 5 think pieces prepared for the evaluation of pilots for the Indonesian Knowledge Sector Initiative. It has been written by a Policy Analyst working in the Select Committee Office in the UK Parliament. The views expressed in these publications are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Commonwealth of Australia accepts no responsibility for any loss, damage or injury resulting from reliance on any of the information or views contained in this publication. And, it goes without saying that the views in this post are not those of the UK Parliament and that its sole purpose is to share useful and valuable lessons.]

The art of being and not being political -at the same time

Select Committees work in a political context but stake their reputation on offering non-partisan recommendations to Government. This post considers the implications of that requirement for the way that Committees of the UK Parliament use and communicate evidence, and for how Committee staff operate.

Background

I work in a team of around 11 Policy Analysts, each attached to a parliamentary Select Committee or sub-Committee. Each Committee is also staffed by a clerk, who is responsible for giving procedural advice to the Committee’s Chair and Members, and by a Committee Assistant, responsible for administrative support. The Committees are also serviced by a Communications team of three people. This set-up compares with the staffing arrangements in the constituency and parliamentary offices of members of parliament, who might employ up to ten people across their offices, with the one or two political advisers who work to Shadow ministers in the House of Commons, and with the much larger policy teams working in Government departments.

House of Lords Select Committees tend to have a different focus from House of Commons Committees. Most Commons Committees shadow the work of Government Departments, while Lords Committees try to take a cross-departmental approach to public policy scrutiny. Commons Committees tend to have a larger policy and media staff than Lords Committees, meaning that they are often able to take a more reactive, short-term view of current issues that often have significant media interest. The aim of Lords Committees is to capitalise on the expertise of an appointed House to enable more in-depth analysis of longer-term issues, perhaps arriving at conclusions that the Lords’ elected counterparts in the Commons would find difficult to advocate.

This post details my experiences of working as an independent non-partisan advisor in this highly politicised environment, including my thoughts on the role and uses of evidence-based policy-making in this context. It offers some suggestions about how these experiences might help other practitioners of evidence-based policy-making.

The challenges: being and not being political

Because the Committee Office services Members from different political backgrounds, a fundamental aspect of our work is to ensure that our advice remains independent and neutral. Yet this advice is offered in a political context. Making an argument about how policy might be changed is in itself a political act. To ensure neutrality and unbiased advice, it is important for analysts to keep abreast of party political or ideological arguments about relevant aspects of public policy. This means that people who are employed by the office tend to be already interested in politics. Committee Reports are supposed to meet with consensual approval from Committee Members, across party lines; Committee staff therefore find it helpful to talk to Committee Members in order to understand their views on specific Committee proposals. A helpful Chairman or Chairwoman can assist with this process by negotiating between the policy staff and Members.

This desire for consensus also has an effect on how evidence is used in Committee Reports. Having also worked in a more partisan political environment, I have noticed how Committee Reports are much more explicitly evidence-based than other forms of political and policy research. There is a much stronger requirement to reflect adequately the range of opinions that the evidence-gathering process uncovers. One result of the consensual decision-making process is that recommendations made by Committees can sometimes be quite broad, though this is not always the case. The cross-departmental nature of Lords Committee inquiries also tends towards general recommendations.

The only part of the evidence-gathering and Report writing process that Committees do not publish are the private deliberations about the structure of evidence sessions, and about the final Report. This, and the fact that the Reports fully reference the evidence received by the Committee, enable stakeholders to understand how a Report’s conclusions are arrived at, and what influences might have been brought to bear on the final recommendations.

How to remain neutral?

The requirement that Committee Reports be rigorously evidence-based leads to a strong emphasis on introducing inputs from experts, whether through oral witness sessions or by employing Specialist Advisers as consultants. The convening power of the Houses of Parliament means that Committees do not find it difficult to attract the key experts in the fields that are being researched.

The ability to cultivate successful interpersonal relationships with the Chair and Committee Members is central to the work of Committee staff, for the reasons outlined earlier. Some training is available for developing constructive relations. The most effective relationships balance a proactive Chair with an engaged policy analyst and successful coordination by the Clerk, who will be aware of the potential political, press and legal ramifications of the Committee’s work. Though the Clerk signs off on any decisions that impinge on these considerations, each member of staff will be aware of the political boundaries of their role and the role of the Committee.

The policy analysts themselves have a range of expertise, though broadly they work as generalists or experts. The generalists may eventually fall into a pattern of policy focuses –for example, they might work on primarily domestic issues, or work on medium- or long-term issues. The key skill is the ability to be selective about what to read, and what it is important to know about.

Emerging lessons

Evidence-based policy-making is a term much-discussed by Select Committee staff. I think the term has been further explored in the Aid industry. This is perhaps because of the strong focus on the need to demonstrate impact in development interventions. Select Committee Reports will automatically achieve one type of impact –the Government are obliged to make a formal response to them– and often have an impact on Government policy.

Paradoxically, because policy impact is the explicit role of a Select Committee, there seems to be less need to measure and demonstrate that impact. Committee Reports are able to make such impact because they are cross-party and non-partisan, and are therefore more likely to have their recommendations acknowledged by the Government than, for example, the opposition party’s policy prescriptions.

The evidence-gathering process works well in terms of developing networks and coalitions with important opinion-formers around an issue. This both ensures that the evidence referred to is as balanced as possible, and helps to encourage their engagement and support once the Report is published. Think tanks and research institutions might consider involving a broad range of stakeholders in the research stage of a project in order both to ensure that a wide range of views is represented, and also to prepare the ground for the acceptance in the policy-making communities of any recommendations that an institution might make.

The Select Committee’s explicit focus on balance, and their attempt to make the evidence-gathering process as all-encompassing as possible means that Select Committee Reports are much more evidence-based than most documents produced in a political context. But this is not to deny that the Reports are designed to have influence in a political context. Select Committee Reports are unlikely to make recommendations that are politically implausible for the Government –context, and understanding that context, is key.  The result is that while the Reports are as evidence-based as they can possibly be, they still reflect the consensus opinion of a Select Committee, and are explicitly designed to influence Government– as such, they are not equivalent to academic research projects.

It is easier to assess the influence of a Committee that exists across parliamentary sessions than one that is set up only for one session, though even in the case of the former type of Committee there seems to be less focus on measuring this impact than there is in Aid industry. This is perhaps because Committees have more influence on policy than most organisations external to Government, which means that they are also realistic about their ability to influence.

For me, this suggests that measuring influence is in itself a political process as expectations for influence change depending on the likelihood that any influence will be achieved.

The combination of the reputation of Parliament and its Committee system, the ability to gather the highest-profile witnesses, and the level of interest in the subjects that Committees cover, mean that Committees have  the capacity to get ideas and information on the agenda, which the media and the public might otherwise have ignored. In this way, Committees can play a strong role in setting policy agendas and identifying and framing public policy problems. Committees are in this way able to lend their credibility to issues that they decide are of import. NGOs and stakeholder groups therefore spend a lot of effort trying to get their voices heard by Committees.

Stakeholders would benefit from realising that Committees require both political balance and credibility from their witnesses in order to write effective Reports. No matter what part of the political spectrum a witness comes from, their evidence is likely to be more influential if it is well-reasoned and itself draws on a sound evidential base. A lesson for the development community might be that this is best achieved in an intellectual environment in which a diversity of expertise and experience can be drawn upon. London is a world centre of political, policy and academic research and hence Committees can do very effective work there. But where there are only a few research centres, researchers, experts and practitioners to call on things may not be that easy.

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